Ecuador has been paralyzed by a national strike as the president, Lenín Moreno, refused to step down or overturn austerity measures that have triggered the worst unrest in a decade.
Streets were empty of traffic and businesses were closed from early in Quito and other cities during the shutdown, in Latin America’s latest flare-up over unpopular structural reforms.
Security forces fired teargas to break up hundreds of protesters marching near the presidential palace in downtown Quito, the highland capital.
Violent demonstrations erupted in the Andean nation of 17 million people a week ago when Moreno cut fuel subsidies as part of a package of measures in line with a $4.2bn International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
“What the government has done is reward the big banks, the capitalists, and punish poor Ecuadoreans,” said Mesias Tatamuez, head of the Workers’ United Front umbrella union.
The main indigenous group Conaie, which has mobilized about 6,000 members to Quito from outlying areas, said Moreno’s government was behaving like a “military dictatorship” by declaring a state of emergency and setting an overnight curfew.
Protesters again barricaded roads on Wednesday morning with debris, while security forces themselves blocked a major bridge in the coastal city of Guayaquil to thwart demonstrations.
Moreno, 66, who succeeded leftist leader Rafael Correa in 2017, has relocated his government to Guayaquil where there has been less unrest than in Quito.
He has defied calls to quit.
“I don’t see why I should if I’m making the right decisions,” Moreno said late on Tuesday, arguing that Ecuador’s large debt and fiscal deficit necessitated belt-tightening reforms.
For days, protesters have been marching and barricading roads with burning tires. Masked youths have hurled stones at security forces, who have responded with teargas and water cannons.
“Our flag is red, like the blood of the working class!” chanted marchers in downtown Quito, where anti-Moreno and anti-IMF graffiti covered walls.
“Moreno out!” and “Police murderers!” some shouted.
Authorities have arrested nearly 700 people in a week of unrest, and dozens of police officers have been injured.
Moreno has accused former friend, mentor and boss Correa of seeking a coup with the help of fellow socialist president Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
Moreno served as Correa’s vice-president during his decade-long rule, but broke with him after winning election and moved economic policies to the right.
From Belgium where he lives, Correa has been applauding the demonstrators but scoffed at accusations of seeking a coup. Maduro, himself immersed in economic crisis in Venezuela, also denied involvement in Ecuador.
Moreno has support from the business elite and the military appears to remain loyal, but his popularity is less than half of what it was two years ago and Ecuadoreans are mindful that indigenous protests helped topple three presidents before Correa.
“I feel betrayed by Moreno,” said printer and father of eight Luis Calvopina, 53. “I don’t want him to quit, but I do want him to reverse this stupidity that he has done.”